As I drove to Astro Skate of Bradenton on a chilly Saturday morning in January to an open recruitment for the Bradentucky Bombers, I told myself I wasn’t going to join the team. I had a lot of excuses: I didn’t have the time; I didn’t want to get hurt; I didn’t want to invest the money; I was intimidated. But I had told my new friend and coworker Sarah Bikos, known in the derby world as Dita von Cheats, captain and head trainer of the Bombers, that I would show up and listen to what they had to say.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.

When I walked into the rink, I was greeted by garish pink carpet, whimsical murals of a dreamlike space scene graced the walls and kids skating laps, laughing and yelling. I sat down to meet with the women of the Bombers and was instantly transfixed. The stereotype of a derby girl is tattooed, eccentric hair, piercings, and a myriad of other visual cues to that of a counter culture. And while some of these women fit the description, others didn’t. Ages ranged from 20 to 45. One woman was a certified public accountant by day, bruiser by night; another was a student at Ringling College of Art and Design, my alma mater. There was a doctoral student and an insurance broker. Another was an elementary art teacher to pay the bills who sings in a punk rock band and owns a record store for fun. They didn’t fit a certain mold. And they were nice—really nice. They explained the ins-and-outs of the game to me, what would be expected of me in terms of training and commitment and what equipment would be required to start. I decided to give it another chance and went to a practice that following Monday to watch. It was there I became hooked.

I learned the rules of the sport. Each match, called a bout, has 14 players on the bench at a time. Each round, called a jam, lasts up to two minutes. Four players from each team line up on the jam line from each team, three blockers and one pivot, while a fifth player, the jammer, lines up behind the walls with a star designation on her helmet. When the whistle is blown, the action begins. The jammer immediately attacks the pack of women and muscles her way through for their initial pass. Once she gets through that first time, each opposing blocker or pivot she passes is a point. The first jammer through, called the lead jammer, has the ability to call off the jam at any point in the two minutes, usually as a strategy. The bout itself has two periods, each lasting 30 minutes. And the entire hour of gameplay is fast-paced, chaotic, exciting and dangerous. There are a lot of rules, along with a lot of referees, who are there to ensure the skater’s safety, but things happen. People fall, collide and hit hard. I am informed it will hurt.

Photography by Wyatt Kostygan.

I started out as a Bettie, or Fresh Meat, and slowly moved up the ranks. They taught me how to fall properly, stop, skate backwards, transition, jump and more. Once I passed my first set of skills, I was able to do contact. I joined scrimmage practices and was allowed to “soft jam.” I kept getting faster, more stable and less scared. But injuries came with the fearlessness of learning how to be a Bomber. As a Bettie, you tend to get hurt more than a veteran skater because you still make little mistakes that end up costing you. Standing up when I got hit resulted in my head hitting the ground, causing whiplash and multiple concussions. Falling incorrectly and using my hand to stop me caused three sprained fingers on my left hand (I still cannot wear my wedding ring because of the swelling). And twisting my leg as I landed hard caused a tear in my MCL, which now requires the regular use of a knee brace even after it has healed. 

Despite all of these injuries, I kept going and kept pushing. Roller derby is the most physically, emotionally and mentally draining thing I have ever done. I’m a petite woman, standing at 4-foot-11 on a good day, and at least half of our team is twice my size. It is my mission on the track to stay upright when one of those women hits me, to make my strides longer than theirs, to keep a woman a foot taller and 100 pounds heavier than me from getting past.

Even more than the push to be a great roller derby player was the camaraderie between players on the team. Upon joining this team, you instantly become a part of a family you never knew you were missing from your life. Four years prior to joining the team, I lost my mother to ALS, a battle she fought for years. I have best friends, sisters and aunts who would always be there for me, but they live in states all over the country. It wasn’t until I joined the Bombers that I really felt I had women in my life around whom  I could be myself. An instant family of women that I never would have met otherwise.

After nine months of training, I passed all of my skills and could officially call myself a Bradentucky Bomber. The euphoria I felt when I crossed the jammer line after skating hard for five minutes straight in an effort to do 25 full laps without stopping was something I would equate to a runner’s high. All of the blood, sweat, tears and concussions were finally going to pay off as I prepared to play my first official bout against the Dub City Militia, a travel team from West Palm Beach. It was intense lacing up for the first time as the crowd began to file in. Friends, family, strangers and fans all took their seats as we warmed up and a combination of nerves and adrenaline began to fill the pit of my stomach. It was a terrifying feeling, but exciting at the same time. We went through the pre-bout motions—gear check, the national anthem playing through the entire rink—and I tried to take it all in. When Dita, our bench coach for the game, began the first of many pep talks, it started to feel real. I had never been on this side of the rink before. Before I knew it, Guinness the Menace, who was in charge of our line-ups, told me I was up next. My legs were uncontrollably shaking as I made my way to the line. Then the whistle blew. From there, most of the game was a blur—what we call jamnesia. I do know we played well as a team, I didn’t get hurt, and we won the game, which is all I could really ask for. It happens so fast and runs so smoothly that you hardly realize what is happening until it’s over.

And once it’s over, you cannot wait to do it again.